7 Steps to Beating the Drudgery of Practicing--a guest post for Pianist Magazine

This post first appeared in Pianist Magazine

The sun streams through the window, the river murmurs outside, and the notes I’m playing are accompanied by bird songs.  It should be an idyllic creative moment.  It’s not.  I’m knuckle-deep in a thorny set of chord changes (more like tone cluster changes) that stretch my technique, patience, and sanity.  I’ve been playing them over and over and over for the past twenty minutes.  My husband has fled to a back room.  The cat, after a few seconds of frustrated yowls, joined him.  It sounds, in a word, dreadful.  

This is the reality of being a pianist—relentless repetition of small sections of music.  We don’t get the glory of sensitive, beautiful playing without going through this stage.  It’s practice step that one of my friends refers to as “chopping wood and carrying water.”  This work, with all its attention to detail and reinforcement, is the job description of a pianist, professional or amateur.  The professionals just work on different challenges than the beginners.  The process is the same.

Success at the piano requires making peace with this sort of practicing because this (much more than flashy performances) is the true job description of the pianist.  I’m sure there are pianists out there who relish this part of learning new repertoire, but I’m not one of them.  My survival and success as a pianist depended on finding ways to embrace the tedious stages of practicing.  Here’s what I’ve learned from over forty years of practicing the piano:

Play the hardest part first.  You know where it is in the piece—it’s that measure or section that you dread and secretly loathe.  Instead of starting at the beginning (rarely the hardest part of any piece), jump right into the fray of the hardest spot while your energy and motivation is high and you’re less inclined to gloss over the spot by promising yourself you’ll fix it tomorrow.

Work smaller and smarter.  Old joke:  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  It’s the same thing with practicing.  Any technical challenge can be unraveled if you break the problem down into small, individual gestures.  We may want to conquer a whole page, but sometimes the best we can hope for is four measures.  Or two.  And maybe just one hand.  

Get tactile.  Repetition breeds distraction.  When you find yourself thinking about the grocery list or that email you need to write rather than the notes you’re playing, it’s time to get back in touch with what you’re doing.  The fastest way I’ve found to do this is to pay attention to the feel of the keys under my fingers.  Caress the keys; enjoy the sleekness of the surface under your fingertips.  

Chase tone.  Create a beautiful sound, even when you’re struggling for notes.  “Hacking” at the notes leads to unmusical playing.  Unmusical sounds lead to ear fatigue,  Ear fatigue leads to tuning out and giving up.  Don’t torture yourself with unintentionally ugly sounds.

Work in short bursts.  Promise yourself you only have to do drudgery practice for a certain period of time, and then stick to that.  Don’t quit early but don’t drag it out either.  Keep these timed practice bursts relatively short to keep frustration, distraction, and defeatism at bay.

Reward yourself by playing something beautiful.  When you’ve finished your daily allotment of difficult practice, play something you know well.  It could be another section of the same piece or something else entirely.  It’s your reward for doing your work.  It’s also a reminder that the hard work is worth it.  Let the last thing you play each day be something you know and love.

Work on it every day.  Yes, every day.  Research consistently shows that shorter, daily practice sessions are more effective than a weekend marathon.  

Practicing isn’t a sign of lack of talent, it’s proof that we’re growing and stretching as pianists.  Every pianist—professional or not—is part of an elite tribe of people who are motivated (and brave!) enough to sit at the piano and face our inadequacies every day.  Because, at the root of it all, we’re all practicing exactly the same thing:  how to manage ourselves.